Pride of Place


Langham Apartments, 1936
Talmage Apartments, 1925
Wilhelm Apartments, 1905

 

In the first third of the 20th Century, Los Angeles developers built many tall apartments in the midst of single-family homes.

One sees, in the older sections of the city, in West Hollywood, Koreatown, and West Adams, the presence of five, six, even ten story apartment houses that pop up, sometimes mid-block, in-between single family properties.

These photographs of buildings, from the USC Digital Archives, are historically valuable, but also aesthetically heartbreaking, for it shows a city where architecture mattered, and humans were housed in civil, respectable, affordable places. Isn’t that the bare minimum expected in a “First World” nation?

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Asbury Apartments, 1940

There may have been poor people in 1925, but they didn’t live in the tens of thousands under bridges, on park benches, or wander the streets as zombies, covered in dirt, screaming obscenities. Nor would the society back then have allowed mass vagrancy as public policy.

The old buildings were strong and subtle. They wore their classic proportions without irony. They commanded respect quietly. They stood confidently, wore facades in single colors, and were built of solid materials like brick, solid concrete or smooth stucco.

La Wanda Arms, 1936

Today, market style makers demand new apartments broken up nervously in clashing colors, painted in clownish and garish hues, most likely to reduce their bulk, preventing probable offense to neighbors prickly over density. They scream fun, but omit horror on the first of each month when rent is due.

But, in fairness to these attention grabbers, at least they have a dialogue with the street, and introduce shops and ground floor activity to the area. They just do it in the Instagram way, by shouting, “look at me man!”


The old buildings always marched right up to the sidewalk. You entered by walking up to an entrance. And this zoning reinforced the urbanity of the neighborhood, because it created chances for pedestrians to interact. Compare that to six lanes of Sepulveda, and parking garage apartments where the only people walking outside are selling something illegal.

Dover Apartments, 1940

Imagine if Van Nuys Boulevard near the Busway had a Langham or Talmage Apartments with hundreds of residents who walked to the bus, or rode their bikes, or ate in restaurants in the neighborhood?

1275 N. Hayworth Av. 1931

 

The old civility of courtyard housing, of interior spaces, shielded from the sun, planted with greenery, done with subtlety and grace, that is also how this city used to build.

What is preventing the State of California, the City of Los Angeles, the people of this region, from banding together to amend the harmful zoning laws that prohibit certain types of structures, once commonplace 100 years ago, from being built again?

Abundant Housing LA says it best:

“A whopping 87 percent of LA’s total housing supply was built prior to 1990, while only 13 percent was built in the last 25 years.

 More recently, between 2010 and 2015, we’ve only added approximately 25,000 new units. That number does not include all of 2015 and includes none of 2016, and it will grow by 30 to 50 thousand in the next several years as existing developments finish construction and planned projects get underway. But at best we’re roughly on pace for housing production similar to the ’90s and ’00s, both of which saw historically small amounts of new housing and historically large increases in housing prices. That’s not a boom, that’s the continuation of a decades-long slump.

 This slump is reflected in our city’s vacancy rates, which have a direct relationship to home prices and rents. Lower vacancy rates cause prices to go up faster. It’s exactly the same relationship we see with unemployment: When unemployment is low and fewer people are looking for work, labor is scarce and so workers can sell their labor for more money. As a result, job applicants and existing employees gain bargaining power and their average pay increases. Likewise, when housing is scarce, landlords gain bargaining power and rents increase.”

 

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Heaven in Hell.


On May 31, 2017 it was announced that homelessness in Los Angeles had increased by 23% in the past year, a figure true to anyone who drives down boulevards packed with old RVs, or passes many bus stop benches hosting overnight guests.

60,000 or more are sleeping outdoors, and many more are arriving daily from cold cities and small towns, around the world, to camp out here. Others fought and suffered in our long running theaters of international conflict, and still more lost their jobs, their health insurance, and their families.

But sixty-four human beings are no longer homeless because they now live at the Crest Apartments on Sherman Way, a glistening, five-story tall tower built by the Skid Row Housing Trust which provides permanent supportive housing for people afflicted with poverty, poor health, disabilities, mental illness or addiction.

Or all of the above.

Yesterday, there was a grand opening at Crest, attended by architect Michael Maltzan, Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, Congressman Tony Cardenas, and District #2 City Councilman Paul Krekorian, CEO Mike Alvidrez of SRHT, and other workers from agencies, private funding groups, banks and the blogosphere.

Little trays of pretty little food were laid out. Smart looking people with downtown clothing and uptown education mingled amongst the residents. The air smelled of refinement called into service for a national emergency.

Two sartorial standouts, a tall man and a tall woman, radiated chicness in oversized collars and skinny, pegged black pants. They said nothing but perused the on-site finishes. I walked up the stairs with them in silence. They must have come here on their way to LACMA.

As the dignitaries spoke, a cold, foggy wind blew across the seats, chilling dieting women and putting men like me into a stupor. Yet, perhaps because we live in chilling times, with an international ignoramus in the White House, the words emanating from the dais seemed charged with eloquence and urgency, rousing us from our jadedness.

“Get active not angry!” thundered Representative Tony Cardenas, the former City Councilman whose previous epoch in Van Nuys made everyone angry and inactive.

Sheila Kuehl told a metaphorical story about three women saving drowning babies in the river. One rescued the babies, one taught them how to swim, the other lady wanted to know who was throwing the babies into the water. Sadly for Sheila, the nearest river was the LA one, so it was hard to imagine it flowing.

A Vietnam Vet, disabled, now living here, spoke of his previously unraveling life that left him without a place to put his “NAM” cap. He had been chosen, like a lucky lottery winner, to move into Crest Apartments.

We were all gathered here to celebrate something that is uncommon in Los Angeles: An exquisite piece of architecture, run by a non-profit, financed by private and public funding, dedicated to the proposition that all humans deserve a chance to live in dignity, cleanliness and even artfulness, while rebuilding their broken lives into something moral, fulfilling and contributory.

The Architect

Michael Maltzan, the architect, has become the go-to guy for homeless housing perhaps because he quietly designs top-notch, low-budget, stripped-down minimalism.

Here, at the Crest, he contrasted a white facade with some bright colors and brought in light. The breezy, gentle, undulating landscaping includes organic gardens, and flowering trees softening his straight lined, laconic forms.

Maltzan is unlike many of his bedazzling contemporaries in Los Angeles. He is a shy reformer, like Irving Gill, or RM Schindler, an architect who builds without fancy materials, but plays with light, inserting windows and openings to create a rhythm.

Walking down the spare halls of Crest yesterday, there was a penitential severity in its white walls and concrete floors, but then you would turn a corner and stumble upon freedom: a bright, open-air lookout, painted in green or yellow or blue.

CEO Mike Alvidrez of SRHT and Architect Michael Maltzan

From the street, the Crest Apartments is like a sting of pearls left in a dumpster.

Smoky, chemical fumed Sherman Way is up there on the list of the ugliest and most inhuman streets in Los Angeles, a road where civilized life was extinguished long ago, hosting a violent deluge of speeding drivers, fuming trucks, asphalt parking lots, Thai restaurants, mini-malls, baklava outlets, tattoo shops, marijuana clinics, car washes, discount marble, gentleman’s clubs, unlicensed medical clinics and an air of impending menace and blazing desperation.

Yet, this degradation is also where you stumble upon one of the gentlest and best-intentioned small projects erected in contemporary Los Angeles.

Now we only need 100,000 more Crests.

All the Great Plans…


Yesterday afternoon, we were gathered at MacLeod Ale to celebrate Quirino’s birthday. We sat along a wooden table in the back, near the bags of hops. People were playing darts. The front door was closed, the air conditioning was on, we ate BBQ tri-tip beef (marinated in MacLeod). And we were discussing Van Nuys over warm and cold beer.

A young guy named Daniel sat across from me. He had worked under Former Councilman (Congressman!) Tony Cardenas and is now in the city planning department. Andreas asked him if he thought Van Nuys might be the new Highland Park.

“Not now, maybe not ever,” Daniel said.

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“Highland Park Market” Photo by Lance Leong / Flickr

Daniel was versed, in the somnambulistic and arcane zoning laws of Los Angeles, the kind that mandate how much parking is needed and what height a building can be, if additional units of housing can go up if some rents come down. And how many feet away from a school is permissible for a liquor store? And who can put up a 1200 sf granny flat in their backyard (the answer is you).

His generalized, and probably correct assertion is that Highland Park has an active and engaged group of residents and Van Nuys does not. The same is true of more affluent and contentious areas like Studio City or Woodland Hills. In those places, where planters and trees now line the boulevards, bike lanes are carved out, and revitalized shops, apartments, housing are going in. Much of the credit goes to the people who live there.

Van Nuys complains. But it never unites to fight for its betterment. Much easier to bicker on the Next Door app.

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Construction of the Santa Monica Freeway 1961. (USC)

Also at our table was white-haired, impassioned, articulate Howard who is on the VNNC. He is smart, accomplished, a lifelong resident of Los Angeles who grew up near Venice and Fairfax and watched the demolition of housing during the construction of the Santa Monica Freeway in the early 1960s. At that time, thousands of old houses, many architecturally notable, were bulldozed.

Howard recalled the dirt berm that extended for fifteen miles after the houses came down. “At night you could hear the rats, there were millions of them, and they ran and scurried and made noise.”

The Santa Monica Freeway was part of the big plan for Los Angeles. As was the Van Nuys Civic Center, Dodger Stadium, Bunker Hill, and the Federal Building in Westwood. In all these cases the results were less than stellar. Walkable, vibrant, historic, human scaled places were obliterated. And what remains today are acres of baked asphalt and mute modernism.

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Howard said that the planned redevelopment of Van Nuys Boulevard, to make it a transit hub, to put a light rail down the center, to install bike lanes, to increase the allowable height of apartments, all of these progressive ideas, pushed by everyone from New Urbanists to developers and transit advocates, would be a “disaster for Van Nuys.” Many small businesses would close and the area would turn into something worse than even the hellish condition it currently is in.

So simultaneously, he decried the automobile oriented era of the Santa Monica Freeway and mimicked the impending one of density and pedestrian oriented development.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”- F. Scott Fitzgerald

And yet his views do make sense if you consider that every time big ideas come to Los Angeles, they are somehow, like a good-looking wannabe actor/model from the hinterlands, deflated and defeated by this city.

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Renderings by Gensler Courtesy of Psomas
Renderings by Gensler Courtesy of Psomas

The daily assassination of youthful idealism is the oldest tradition in our city.

In the built environment there is also something here that abhors a unifying concept of planning and harmony. If a building can be built to stick out and look freaky and out-of-place it is deserving of praise.

In architecture, as in politics and entertainment, the bigger the carnival and the louder the wreck, the more applause, the more profits. That’s what we are aiming to create.

When we do get together under some banner like Mayor Villaraigosa’s “Million Trees” or Mayor Garcetti’s “Great Streets” the gods start to laugh at us. We are best at half-hearted, half-completed projects.

And perhaps that negative is a good thing. One must give Los Angeles credit, not only for attempting to build massive public works, but for making sure that once the great works go up, small indignities, like homeless encampments along the Orange Line Bike Path, will sober up dreamers and urban fantasists.

All the Great Plans are like those coffee-house conferences with laptops, planning to produce and cast and finance something, someday….


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The Agence Ter plan. (Pershing Square Renew)

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On the drawing board now is a new park in Pershing Square.

Two years ago, I went with a group of photographers to shoot the city on a Sunday afternoon and was told I could not put my camera on a tripod. This was in the same park where mattresses were laid out and people sprawled down stairs drunk and asleep.

A public park where public photography is regulated by private security.

What you should be able to do in public you cannot, and what you should NOT do, is allowable.


And then there is MacLeod Ale, a private venture, started by two people over 50, using family money and retirement funds to make great beer.

That one small incubator of beer seems to produce more ideas for the betterment of Van Nuys than any political slogan coming out of City Hall.

Throw out all the great plans for Van Nuys.

Start small, dream big, pursue your own venture. Maybe that is the key to change.

 

 

The Lost Art of Selling Auto Parts.


Back when Los Angeles was younger, at the dawn of the automobile age after World War I, tires, gasoline and cars were sold in buildings and displayed in a manner befitting a jewelry store.

Among the rich archives of the USC Digital Library, are photographs of local businesses, who put extraordinary artistry into their signage and architecture to draw in customers, while projecting an image of modernity attractive to the growing city.

Many of these photos come from the Dick Whittington Studio.

The Festival of Garbage


For anyone who lives in Van Nuys, and has not lately visited Raymer St. between Kester and Van Nuys Bl., the Festival of Garbage is now in full display.

Dumped along the median from the bridge to the boulevard are tons of trash. It is perhaps the filthiest, most appalling and most wretched scene of degradation in the entire city of Los Angeles.

Calcutta looks like Beverly Hills compared to this.

Across from the sanitation crisis is a large recycling center, an irony that one might analogize to having an indifferent fire department next door to a burning building. If you are in the business of collecting refuse, how can you refuse to clean up the area around your business?

Adding to the criminality of the area, dozens of unhitched trucking trailers are parked along the road, taking up space, and attached to no moving vehicles.

The bridge over the railroad tracks has been, naturally, taken over by the homeless who live under, in and on top of the structure. They cross on foot over the tracks where Metrolink speeds by a few times an hour.

Does Los Angeles have any measure of pride? How does the city allow this tsunami of trash?

Who is responsible for this mess?

I vote for Councilwoman Nury Martinez and Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Observations Atop the 134 Bridge After the Storm.


LA River/Griffith Park

After many days of successive, concussive waves of rain swirling into Los Angeles, the hills in Griffith Park were wet, green, and soaked.

I walked there, yesterday afternoon, along the bike path, and the bridle path, at the point where the 134 roars alongside the LA River.

LA River/Griffith Park griffith-park-after-rain-6

The storm, now depleted, had moved east, sent into exile. And in the distance, under dark clouds, I saw the Verdugo Mountains, the flat roofed towers of Glendale, and all the man-made highways and power lines: showered and renewed, glistening and spot lighted by sun.

The littered homeless encampment on the island in the middle of the river was vacated. There was nobody else around but me, except for a lone man riding a child’s bike.

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A bridge over the waters and the freeway, a bridge under construction, its metal rods exposed, a messy conglomeration of concrete, lumber, fencing and plywood, that incomplete, torn-up bridge evoked others before her time destroyed by floods.

Angelenos in the 1930s and before lived in fear of the river and put their hope in President Roosevelt. Now we trust the river and fear our president.

Once we trembled under the fury of nature. Now we shudder under the drama of political malfeasance.

After 1940, the army conquered the unpredictable river, contained its fast water, and controlled its deadly fury.

Tomorrow, we trust, we hope, will fold out and reveal itself as it did in Genesis.

“Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. The water receded steadily from the earth. And God said

never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.

 “As long as the earth endures,

seedtime and harvest,

cold and heat,

summer and winter,

day and night

will never cease.”

LA River/Griffith Park